Text: Matthew 3:13-17
The three questions, or the “turnings” as I like to call them:
Question 1: Do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
Question 2: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior?
Question 3: Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple?
As Presbyterians we answer those questions on behalf of our children at their baptisms and on behalf of ourselves at our own baptisms (if we’re able) and at our confirmations. We also answer them when we join a church, when we’re commissioned to a specific task or calling in the church, when we’re ordained to an office, when we’re installed into a position, or any time when we need reminded of our belonging to Christ and our commitment to follow him. I would be surprised if, at the Presbyterian gate to heaven, the three questions come up again.
Do you turn from sin?
Do you turn to Christ?
Will you follow him?
Or maybe – since I don’t really believe there is a Presbyterian gate, any more than there’s a Lutheran gate or a Catholic gate or a Pentecostal gate – these are simply the three questions required to get into heaven – as some variation of these questions seem to be present in almost every Christian tradition and probably go back in some form to the earliest days of the church.
I wonder if John asked Jesus the three questions:
John: Do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
Jesus: Well I don’t sin, and evil has no power over me.
John: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior?
Jesus: I am Jesus Christ.
John: Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple?
Jesus: Trust me, John. I pledge to go wherever Jesus goes, do whatever Jesus does and say, word for word, everything Jesus says.
Questioned or not, Jesus kneels in the river, feels the water flow over him and experiences the heavens opening, a dove descending and the voice of the Lord: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The very words used by the psalmists to establish the special status of King David. The very words used by the prophet Isaiah to describe the future ruler God would send to save his people.
When I was a kid I learned an earworm of a song still rattling around my head forty some years later. It goes like this:
I am adopted, I’m a special kid you see
Proud to be a member of the royal family
My father has a kingdom and sits upon his throne
He gives me everything I need and makes me as his own
We don’t know what led Jesus to the Jordan that day to be baptized by John. We know nothing about Jesus from ages twelve to thirty. Scripture contains a big blank. Did Jesus know who he was, accept who he was, and pursue baptism so we could connect with him? Did Jesus not know his calling until that moment? Did he struggle with his unique identity, spending the early years of his life trying to be anything but the Son of God? Was his baptism in response to a major life crisis? We don’t know. We do know Jesus goes into the Jordan, the water flows over him, the heavens open, and Jesus’ life turns. God marks him, God names him, God sends him.
Meghan Markle has been on my mind this week. Until 2018 Meghan was a successful, but hardly world famous, American actress. Then, that May, she put on a fancy dress, walked into a church, said some words concerning her undying love for Prince Harry and walked out a princess, the Duchess of Sussex, a member of the British royal family. Her old life as an actress, political activist and fashion influencer ended. A new life with different expectations and different experiences began.
In our baptism God marks us, seals us to use the proper theological language, as one of his own. We become adopted into the divine family. We become God’s children, and if children then heirs, joint heirs with Jesus Christ.
In some ways we’ve simplified baptism over the years. For some its become a harmless ritual we do to make grandma happy. Or the golden ticket to get us into heaven. Yet when fully received in the Holy Spirit our baptisms mark a turning. An understanding of our identity as children of God, a new journey seeing the world through God’s eyes, living the life God requires, experiencing the love, grace, calling and yes trials of discipleship.
When we are born into the family of Christ this turning can come early, before we even can experience it, for our lives are being shaped by the teachings of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, even as we’re born. Others experience the turning later in life, it’s a conscious choice, a commitment – or recommitment – to the path of Christ. An intentional turning from the pathways of sin to a naming of sin’s power over us and over our world. An intentional turning from self-serving interests and false salvations to Jesus and his vision for us and our society. An intentional commitment to follow Jesus with total dedication, without ceasing, to the point, if necessary, of death.
The Jesus we know, the Jesus who’s teachings we study, the Jesus who’s life we follow, the Jesus with the strength to die and the power to overcome death, emerges from the waters of baptism. Jesus enters the water, is named, is called, turns from an old life to a new way of being, and begins the journey to the cross. Whether your baptism was a turning chosen for you by your parents or the result of a decision made by you, how has it shaped your journey? How has God, through water and spirit, made you who you are?